All posts by Gary C. Woodward

The Canvassing Imperative

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But there’s a better option.

In the age of video politics and social media it may come as a surprise that political canvassing survives as a vital way to connect with voters.  Though for many it may seem like a stretch to actually show up at someone’s front door and ask for their support, thousands of Americans are comfortable doing it.  Canvassing is a proven way to increase a candidate’s chances.  One study indicated a 10 percent increase in the likelihood a voter will show up on election day if they have met someone from the campaign.

We have over 500,000 elective offices in the United States. Most are for small districts, featuring local candidates who cannot afford TV buys or big campaign budgets. The solution?  Put your supporters, friends and family to work going door to door and asking voters for their support.  It’s always been an important feature in American political life.  This humble approach is even credited with Barack Obama’s impressive presidential win in 2008. The former Chicago organizer seemed to remember a thing or two about mobilizing neighborhoods.  In that year thousands were mobilized for a street by street effort in key states, spreading enthusiasm from one front porch to the next.

When insiders talk about a good “ground game” this is partly what they mean.  It’s no wonder that the emerging wisdom in campaign strategizing is to put less money into video ads and more into organizing recruits to knock on the doors of the still undecided.

Social media and face to face canvassing share the common thread of a more interpersonal approach to political persuasion.  The canvas in particular is a hopeful exercise in direct citizen to citizen action.  By comparison, candidates who phone in a plea for support via robocalls seem positively lazy .

Two recent developments are reminders of the importance of canvassing. One is a new book by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes on the failed 2016 Clinton campaign.  Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign lays part of her defeat to the fact that her staff did not follow the Obama playbook of fully committing to get-out-the-vote efforts. Of course neither did the victor’s campaign.  But Donald Trump in 2016 was an outlier in so many ways that it is risky to view his path to the White House as a bellwether.

The second development comes from recent reports that some of the parties fighting for dominance in the French elections are trying out American-style canvassing. The tradition is deeply entrenched in Britain, but not across the Channel in France, where talking politics at the front door of a stranger’s home is considered unusual.  But it reflects a feature that motivates so much effective canvassing: an urgency at the grassroots to do something to stave off an election disaster: in this case, what some fear could be a Trump-style victory by far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.  Whatever the outcome of the final vote on May 7, the result is good for democracy in France.  More citizens will have engaged in meaningful contact with their neighbors on a vital question worthy of their effort.

Few householders are hostile.  And most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.

Of course we can do politics at a distance through all kinds of dreary media: direct mail, tweets, television advertising, robocalls and other mechanical means that are poor substitutes for direct citizen action.  But all are disembodied, remote and impersonal.  Only social media come close to rendering an impression of direct contact with others we know.  And even that is partly an illusion: something short of a genuine conversation with a  neighbor in real time and space.

A modern canvasser should not expect a cakewalk.  Many doorbells will not be answered. And some campaigns send their workers to the wrong houses (a micro-targeting challenge that is never easy).  But few householders are hostile.  Most seem surprised that someone cares enough to show up.  And all seem grateful that the canvasser isn’t launching into a lecture about eternal salvation.